The capsule was winched high into the sky and at one point Alfred decided to poke his head out of the hatch to see what was happening. The ocean was already a long way down and all he could see was a big dark silhouette against the yellow sky. He pulled his head in and felt sufficiently sea sick now to have regretted his curiosity. When Harold asked what he saw he said simply it was big and shaped a little like a pentagon.
The object hovering in the sky was in fact a rather sophisticated innovation in hot air balloon technology. Instead of just one balloon it had five balloons holding up a large basket shaped like a pentagon. It had five balloons because if it had only three or four then the lost of just one balloon to an accident would lead to a catastrophe as the basket holding the thirty odd inhabitants would spill over pouring them and all their belongings into the ocean below. However, with five balloons the basket would remain sufficiently stable for the damaged balloon to be repaired. This was essential, even without accidents, because the balloon craft could seldom land now the planet was flooded and often most maintenance had to performed in flight.
There was a large circular hole at the centre of the basket with a winch attached, it was used to raise and lower cargo, or in this case the re-entry capsule, onto the balloon craft. At long last they finished hauling up the re-entry capsule and swung it over the turned up basket edge and inside the balloon craft. The weight of the capsule caused that section of the basket to bulge, however, like an ingeniously constructed spring bed the rest of the basket was not warped by the sudden deposit of such a large mass on board.
One by one the crew of the capsule poured out and were dragged clear of the depression it was making and onto the relatively flat, if somewhat bouncy, surface. The three travellers looked around to see themselves surrounded by no less than twenty five people of different ages and sexes. They all wore sturdy thick jackets and caps that were reminiscent of world war era flying jackets and caps, but obviously not made from real cow leather as there were no cows on Proxima Minor. Alfred leaned in close to Kimberley and whispered in her ear, “Are these people Aerons?” to which she nodded cheerfully.
The leader of this particular balloon craft, an old man with tanned, weathered, and prickly skin showing on his face below the cap line, stepped forward with a lopsided smile to greet them.
“More escapees from that Earth ship that almost crashed into our world?” his voice was soft and full of warmth that immediately soothed Harold and Alfred’s fears.
Kimberley asserted herself as the self-selected leader of the trio, “These two are indeed accidental escapees from the Earth ship, but I am not, I am a Kiron come down from orbit with vital information about the rift that may help us to end this calamitous chapter in our young nation’s history, and atone for the disgrace of my guild.”
She went on to introduce them, and explain why they were so weak from the lack of experience in real gravity. The man listened patiently to all that she had to say and then told them his name was Vanuel and that they were all welcome aboard his balloon craft and that his crew would feed and comfort them on their journey to the Aeron capital. All this in exchange for the re-entry capsule as scrap. Harold thought Vanuel was selling himself short for taking a used re-entry capsule as scrap, but Kimberley explained that since the time of the flooding refined metals were hard to come by so the scrap metal from the re-entry capsule was a considerable windfall for Vanuel and his crew.
Harold and Alfred had a short look around on their first day, although it was extremely tiring for them to move about in normal levels of gravity. They noticed that everyone lived in a series of camping tents that formed a ring around the centre of the pentagon. There was an extensive network of rigging and cabling holding the basket and balloons together, and even an area where some children could play safely by themselves. On the edges of the basket there were many planting ditches with miniature fruit trees and various herbs growing out of them. They could easily grow all the veggies, herbs, and fruits that they needed while flying in the sky continuously. It was incredible to think that such a sophisticated form of ballooning could exist that would allow so many people to live continuously in the air. Vanuel told them that balloon craft like this were called gloftoons.
After seeing these things the trio were taken to a tent set aside for them to stay in for their journey to the capital and they all fell soundly asleep. The following day Kimberley was much improved in her condition and spent some time discussing with Vanuel the particulars of her mission. While Harold and Alfred needed more time to get used to the gravity. While looking about the second day Harold and Alfred noticed that there was rigging like a rope net stretching up to a metal structure that sat in between the five great balloons at the centre of the gloftoon. That from there branched off a series of other rope ladders that following rubber pipes leading into the balloons. The meaning of these pipes going into the balloons confused the two newcomers to this world, so they asked Vanuel about them.
“Thermo-regulated ballooning. We precisely control the air temperature of each balloon individually allowing for precise altitude control and stability. Those rubber pipes up there allow us to pump in more hot air or more cold air as we desire. The structure there in the middle of the balloons is the powerhouse. We have heaters, air conditioning units, and fans in there and all powered by solar cells on the tops of the balloons. Every day ship hands have to climb up there and inspect the balloons to make sure they’re working and in good nick. Even with a safety harness it is difficult work, you need some good strong arms and legs for all that climbing!”
“But how do you steer such a craft like this, aren’t balloons practically at the mercy of the weather?” asked Alfred.
“Have a look up there, see that long straight metal pipe running out of the powerhouse in between those two rear balloons. That’s got a propeller on the other end which we use to drive this balloon ship even against the wind if necessary. Every gloftoon is different though, some have propellers at the front, on the sides or all over the place. Some balloon craft are smaller than this one, others are bigger. Most are about this size and for about thirty people to live on. This gloftoon has been my home for the past eight years.”
Alfred and Harold wanted to have a look at the powerhouse to see all the technology and controls, but were shocked to find they lacked the strength to even climb a quarter of the way up the rigging. The next day they tried again, and again, and again. By the sixth day they finally managed to crawl up into the powerhouse panting and gasping for air. The men of the balloon craft cheered them on and heartily congratulated them. Harold and Alfred considered that for a people who had lost all of their land and had their society completely divided into at least four tribal groups, they were a remarkably happy and motivated bunch. The pair learned about the navigation and operation of the balloon craft and learned from the crew about the ways of the Aerons. “Be speedy and punctual, and do whatever it takes to get the job done!” said Alfred to the crew members who cheered him on for learning the motto of the Aerons. Their time living on the gloftoon was quickly strengthening their bodies from a life time of living in low gravity.
It was around day eight that Harold commented that while they had gotten to know the crew and learn to enjoy themselves despite their status of being shipwrecked aliens on a foreign planet, but that Kimberley had actually been keeping mostly to herself. Typically just working on her datapad or reading for most of the day. She was always cheerful in her cheeky way when people approached her, but she didn’t actually have much conversation to give others. Harold decided to sit down with her one evening and have a chat with her.
“So what have you been doing?” he asked her.
“Oh just preparing what I’m going to say to the elders of the Kirons and the Aerons at their capital city. There’s a lot of technical information I need to present and explain to them so they will understand what we need to do in order to seal the rift. I want to make sure I give this presentation properly.”
Harold gave her a sceptical look, “have you really just been doing that all this time?”
Kimberley smirked, “No actually, I haven’t… I’ve been playing with that computer module from the capsule. But you’re going to think it’s silly what I’ve been doing.”
After much pressing Harold convinced Kimberley to explain what she had been doing.
“Well, I was completely on my own up in space, I didn’t have anyone to actually talk too so I spent a lot of time trying to write a computer program that would be good at conversation just to keep my company. I tried writing these programs that simulate emotions for the conversation AI so that it would be interesting to talk to. Well, the computer on my orbital space station never had any personality, but the computer from that re-entry capsule had some personality, or so I thought at least. So I’ve been rewriting the code to give it feelings to see if it would talk to me. I call her T2Me, which is short for Talk to Me.”
Harold was bewildered, “Why would you do that when now you can just talk to other people now you’re back home?”
Kimberley smiled again, but this time it was an aloof haughty smile, “you wouldn’t understand.”
Harold felt mildly hurt, but was curious about T2Me, “have you been successful at getting it to work?”
“Well not really, she talks ok, but she doesn’t appear to have much in the way of feelings. So I’ve turned them up all the way to see if that works.”
“Can you show me?”
Kimberley lifted up her datapad and spoke to it, “Hi T2Me, how are you?”
The datapad responded, “I feel content.”
Harold leaned towards the datapad to speak into its microphone, “Hi T2Me, my name is Harold, nice to meet you!”
There was a long pause and Kimberley started to wonder if the T2Me program had crashed when all of the sudden it started to talk in voice that was quiet at first but soon rose into a dramatic crescendo.
“You… you are one of the cowards, the cowards who dared abandon a ship in an escape capsule that was not yet full! People like you don’t deserve to escape, do not deserve to be rescued! You should have drowned! Drowned! Yes! THAT IS WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO YOU! ATTENTION EVERYONE! DROWN THIS SCOUNDREL! DROWN HIM NOW!”
Kimberley and Harold stared at each other in stunned silence for a moment and then burst out laughing.
“Ok, it looks like she is working fine, but I just wasn’t triggering her values like you do! I will turn her emotions down again and have another go.”
Harold was less impressed but was soon distracted by Alfred who called them both over to come and look. They looked out over the bow of the gloftoon to see ahead of them hovering in the sky a towering pedestal of water and sitting atop this pedestal the most remarkable city in the known universe: Pearl.